I’m interrupting my Valuing the Deep State series once again to catch up on the world’s big geopolitical developments. I have just returned from a week in Europe—my third in five weeks—where I was promoting the Dutch and German editions of Liberalism and Its Discontents. I got very receptive audiences in both countries to my basic message about the need to defend liberalism, and how Ukraine was critical to that struggle.
On the Sunday I arrived in Amsterdam (October 2), I tweeted the following:
I was then asked by some journalists to expand on this, which I’ll do here. It seems to me that it is quite likely that the entire Russian military position in Ukraine may collapse by the end of the winter. After the breakthrough in Kharkiv, the Ukrainians have continued to advance to Lyman and are heading further south and east to the cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk that they lost over the summer. There has been a breakthrough in the Kherson region as well, with the Ukrainian army advancing on Nova Kakhovka.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
In reaction to the Kharkiv setback, Putin announced his “partial” mobilization on September 21. The latter has been a fiasco from the get-go, with military commissars sweeping up everyone regardless of age, ability, or former military service. This has led some 700,000 young Russians to flee, or attempt to flee, the country. The social deal they had with Putin to stay out of politics in return for peace and stability has been broken, and everyone is now feeling the effects of Putin’s war. These new draftees are apparently being sent to the front with no training and little equipment, and have already been turning up dead or prisoners.
Last Friday, Putin announced the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporzhzhia oblasts in a Moscow ceremony that reeked of fascism. The very next day, Saturday October 8, the Ukrainians succeeded in bombing and seriously damaging the bridge over the Kerch Strait, which is the main Russian supply line into the peninsula. The town of Nova Kakhovka on which they are advancing is an important objective not just with regard to the defense of Russian-occupied Kherson, but also because the canal providing the Crimean Peninsula with drinking water originates from that area. With both the canal and the bridge cut, the Russians will have great difficulty supplying their military in Crimea, putting the liberation not just of Kherson but of the entire region into the realm of possibility.
These Ukrainian advances, as I said in my last post on Ukraine on July 22, are critical for maintaining external support for the war effort, both in Europe and in the United States. And indeed, recent poll data indicates that this support has actually increased since the summer. A stalemated, frozen conflict would create inevitable pressure for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations, but now the Ukrainians have shown that there is light at the end of the tunnel. With Europe having stored sufficient gas over the summer, it seems very likely that governments there will be able to sustain sanctions and continue to supply weapons to Ukraine this winter.
There has been a lot of talk and nervousness about the possibility that a desperate Putin will resort to nuclear weapons to save himself. This possibility must be taken very seriously, but there are many reasons to think that he will not cross this threshold. In the first place, the military gains from escalation will be small, since nuclear weapons—even small “tactical” ones—are better at terrorizing civilians that destroying enemy forces. The blowback from any nuclear use will be enormous, with the narrowing support that Putin has received from the global south disappearing. More importantly, the United States and NATO have a huge number of options for responding, the majority of which do not require symmetrical nuclear use. For example, NATO has rightly resisted Ukrainian calls for a no-fly zone up to now, but this will be immediately on the table in response to a Russian use of nukes. NATO has many means of making the Russian military collapse even faster. Putin is not irrational; he is rather an extraordinary risk-taker, but this risk is likely one too far.
When I tweeted that Russia would collapse, I was referring primarily to their military rather than their political system. But Putin may be in serious trouble at home nonetheless. There are plenty of reports of infighting among the siloviki and other elites in Moscow, with everyone wanting to point a finger of blame for the debacle they face. Putin’s legitimacy rested on the belief that he was a strongman, but he now looks like a foundering fool. There is no way of telling who might replace Putin; they may be even more hardline than him. But they will still lack real capabilities to reverse the defeat or avoid humiliation.
Apart from Ukraine, there have been a number of other happy developments this past week:
1. The women of Iran have stood up in reaction to the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police and protests have continued in dozens of Iranian cities. While similar protests have been violently suppressed in the past, these seem different and far more widespread.
2. China is undergoing a slow-motion regime crisis on the eve of the 20th Party Congress set to begin in a few days. There appears to be no way out of the zero-Covid policy trap that Xi Jinping finds himself in, and the entire growth model, based as it was on state-backed real estate investment, is crumbling. The latest real growth estimates by the World Bank put it at less than 3 percent, below the Asia-Pacific average.
3. On a more personal note, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel prize to organizations led by two graduates of our @StanfordCDDRL programs, Oleksandra Matviichuk and Anna Dobrovolskaya, who have greatly repaid our investment in them by the work they have done on behalf of human rights in Ukraine and Russia.
There’s still plenty of things to worry about. Populist parties made gains in Sweden and Italy, and the Republican Party here continues its descent into madness. American democracy will be at stake in 2024, and in the short run the Democrats will likely lose the House of Representatives next month, leading to two years of dispiriting deadlock and phony investigations. But we have to nonetheless acknowledge that it's been a pretty good week.
Image: The Crimea Bridge over the Kerch Strait bridge following the October 8 2022 strike.
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